Mental toughness is knowing when to withdraw

Simone Biles withdrew from the team final at the Tokyo Olympic Games after receiving her lowest tournament vault score, quoted as saying:

“After the performance I did, I just didn’t want to go on. I have to focus on my mental health.” 

She has since withdrawn from the individual all-around final. Both choices have divided opinion, with some saying that by quitting it shows poor mental toughness and resilience, and others say it’s a characteristic of her courage and strength to safeguard her wellbeing.

Before coming to a conclusion, I’d ask anyone to imagine this – the vault is one of your favourite events, it’s what you have invested time and effort into and you make it to the Olympic Games, but something just doesn’t feel right. For the last few weeks you’ve had doubts about your performance and the anxiety and stress of performing at the Olympic Games has become overwhelming. You decide to compete anyway and then things go horribly wrong. You slip and break your neck. In that one instant your life (and your family’s life) changes forever, when you could have just withdrawn because something didn’t feel right. This is the true story of Julissa Gomez at the 1988 Olympic Games, who, like Simone Biles, is from Texas and complained that things didn’t feel right before the same event – the vault. The injuries Julissa sustained led to her becoming a quadriplegic, and three years after the accident she died as a result of the injuries from that day, aged 18.

For me, Simone’s withdrawal is a beacon of strength and courage for other athletes and onlookers. The perception that the show must go on is outdated and can be detrimental to general health and holistic wellbeing. Working with Olympians who competed at Beijing, London, Rio and now Tokyo Olympic Games, there has been an increase in cases of people reporting mental health issues. Maybe cases are due to an increase in social media attention, more expectations from sponsors and governing bodies, or because we are (all) doing a better job in raising awareness of how to recognise potential mental health triggers and supporting immediate action.

To withdraw from any event, be it the Olympic Games or, as Naomi Osaka did in tennis, the French Open, is OK. We all have a choice. If you perceive that your choice has been removed, it restricts your ability to be creative, feel safe and perform to an optimal level. But if we (including businesses, education providers, governing bodies) support choice, it has the connective power to enhance resilience, mental toughness and grit (passion and perseverance) in a way that safeguards mental and physical health through shared enjoyment and acceptance.

USA Gymnastics in a supportive statement said: 

“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritising her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.” 

I absolutely agree.

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